Should you trust your first impression?

According to psychology, the first impression of someone or something is made in the first 7 seconds. I know, crazy right? Generally, we create a mental image and form an expectation of how that person would behave in the future based on our opinion and experience.

But, how often is that true? Can we trust these first impressions? I hear many people saying – first impressions are crucial and that’s correct because they are hard to change. But, are they accurate enough?

Okay so we are not supposed to judge a book by its cover, I know that. But, we do this without even knowing that we’re doing it – that is simply the way we are wired. Biologically speaking, humans had to make quick decisions about everything surrounding them to endure and pass their genes so mankind could last. There is no doubt about that.

But today we live in modern society. We don’t go running around with our fight or flight mode on, trying to survive…Or do we? As soon as this sentence went through my head I knew I was wrong. We still struggle to survive but it is a different kind of survival – going through a bad week at work or dealing with a break-up…Meeting new people while having social anxiety or going through depression.

Before we go on and talk about first impressions, I must clarify the subject of “Heuristics”. Heuristic techniques are simple strategies to form judgments and make decisions by focusing on the most relevant aspects of a complex problem – humans have relied on heuristics to solve adaptive problems. For example, if you buy a new cellphone – it may be a different color than your old one, it may have some different technical matters or design but at the end, you already know how to handle smartphones – so it shouldn’t be a problem.

This proved to be incredibly useful when it comes to everyday problems because we rely on our past experiences in order to unravel simple difficulties. But, that’s not always the right way to go. When it comes to first impressions with other humans, people use these heuristics techniques unconsciously and judge their surroundings too quickly.

We even form opinions of people based on how they look like. We judge them for their voice, eyes, and shoes. For example, taller men seem to be preserved as more dominant, smarter and more capable than some other shorter men. People with straight teeth are associated with good health, popularity, and success. This kind of first impressions is solely based on appearance and in my belief these assumptions are easier to change because they are often wrong and we are (somewhat?) aware of that. The tricky ones are those which we conclude based on people’s behavior.

Okay, let’s dive in some hypothetical scenario where I tell a story about someone and you try to figure out if your first impression has changed for the better. In the end, we are going to reveal some important things about confirmation bias and updating our impressions. Here we go:

You recently moved to an apartment. Everything seems perfect except – your next-door neighbor. He is obnoxious and loud, curses a lot and he yells to his wife and children in public. You often hear him screaming at his children in the middle of the night and you have troubles falling asleep because of them. Your first impression of him is that he is rude and cruel  – simply an unpleasant man to be around. The next week as you are waiting at the bus station – the rain starts to pour. *Disclaimer – this is not a romantic love story 😀 * At that moment, a man offers to hold his umbrella for both of you and starts a decent conversation. It’s your loud and obnoxious neighbor. Do you change your first impression of him?

What do you think now? Is this man a decent human who has a hard time around his family, or a bad-mannered man who did something very ordinary as offer you his umbrella? Is that an ordinary thing to do nowadays? This question goes directly to my point.

We can change our impressions in light of new information. As we said, first impressions are based on a wide range of characteristics: age, race, culture, language, gender, physical appearance, voice, the time allowed to process, etc. Learning very negative information about someone typically has a stronger impact than learning good ones. Fortunately, that’s not always the case – getting to know about another person’s great abilities and competencies flip that statement around.

Did you change your mind about the Neighbor Guy situation? Let me assure you, there is no right or wrong answer. People easily update their impressions – We simply measure how often this new second behavior occurs in daily life. Is this person’s behavior ordinary or something atypical?

  • If you did not change your first impression about this man, that would mean that you think that giving an umbrella to someone is a normal thing to do – every other person would have done it. It’s a very logical thing to do, right? It’s the screaming and making loud noises that are very annoying and atypical. It’s like – Thank you for the umbrella, but you are still as annoying as hell. This option is based strictly on your perspective and character. The second option here can be explained through the Confirmation Bias aspect – this is the predisposition to interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms your preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. Basically, you are only believing what you want to believe, no matter the obvious facts. People do this – some very often, others very rarely. The cause for this could be a lot of things, maybe fear, arrogance, ignorance, lack of character, etc. but let’s leave that for another blog post 😀
  • If you thought that maybe that man is not so unpleasant after all, you genuinely think that the act of sharing an umbrella is a rare thing to do in this selfish world or you appreciate the good thought. This man could have been next to you and not even realized that someone is suffering or even worse – not even care. So, perhaps his bad manners are underlying frustrations caused by his family. What if his wife is the incarnation of Satan himself? (Heaven forbid 😀 ) Would you understand his madness?

Whatever the case, an impression can change not because of the subjects, but because of our viewpoints, principles, and experience. People may act a certain way or promise you the moon and say the nicest things – if you are accustomed to that kind of behavior, nothing will change the first impression. Your opinion will only be changed if a person does something unusual, something fascinating and out of line. And how can we classify what behavior is worth enough for someone to change his/her opinion? We can’t, it’s a very subjective matter.

And now, I want you to think about the last time you have judged someone in a blink of an eye, and then changed your opinion about them. What was this behavior that caused you to update your impression? Something out of the ordinary maybe? 🙂

Leave your thoughts in the comment section down below, it would be nice to engage and discuss your experiences with first/second impressions.

Have a nice day,
Aleksandra

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